“Biobanks have enabled healthcare innovation”

April 10, 2021 0 By FM

Sapien Biosciences, India’s first commercial biobank co-founded by Dr Jugnu Jain, won a top prize at TiE Women regional finals for her biobank multi-disease screening solution idea.

TiE Women is an initiative by The Indus Entrepreneurs, with an idea to ‘Embrace, Engage and Empower’ women entrepreneurs across the globe.

In a conversation with Prapti Shah, Dr Jain, currently CEO of Sapien Bio, talks about how biobanks fulfill some of the unmet but critical needs of clinicians and researchers. Dr Jain, a molecular geneticist and cell biologist who obtained her Ph D from Cambridge University, followed by a postdoc at Dana Farber Cancer Institute, has two patents and around 20 papers in leading journals, including Nature and Science, to her credit.

Edited excerpts:

Can you please elaborate on your partnership with Apollo Hospitals? How has it been?

Sapien was established in a visionary partnership with Apollo Hospitals, a pan-India network of 71 multi-specialty hospitals that allowed us to create a multi-centric, pan-India biobank covering all diseases. We started with one hospital in 2012 and now have a pan-India footprint of more than 20. We chose Apollo as a strategic partner since they have electronic medical data (EMR), functioning ethics committees and high-quality NABL and JCL accredited labs and hospitals. Our model of sharing samples with Indian and global partners, in keeping with ICMR guidelines, has led to a sustainable business model, unlike most biobanks in India and abroad. Most international biobanks depend on government or charitable funding. There are no other biobanks of our scale, geographical coverage, sheer volume and diversity of patient types. We have a customer-focused approach and routinely engage with customers to understand their needs and develop new systems and products to satisfy them.

How can biobanks be instrumental in healthcare innovation?

A biobank is a social enterprise that benefits its stakeholders and the society at large. Time magazine has called it among the 10 most transformational ideas in the world. Biobanks such as UK Biobank funded by public money spur solutions for health and well-being by identifying risk factors for diseases, diagnosing diseases earlier and more accurately, screening family members at risk, customizing a patient’s treatment to improve outcomes etc. We are the first in India to build this infrastructure and have accomplished similar goals for Indian patients. There are many instances where biobanks have enabled healthcare innovation. I would like to share some examples of our own. One example of improving healthcare delivery is the development of a human skin model in our lab which uses normal human skin that would otherwise be discarded after cosmetic surgeries. We use it to test the permeability, safety and efficacy of new skin formulations, derma applications, drugs etc. Similarly, we use human cancer tissue to culture in our lab as 3D spheroids to screen new anti-cancer drug candidates. Two clinical diagnostic tests have been launched: myPlatelet test, used to optimize anti-platelet therapy for interventional cardiology PCI-plus-stent patients, and canAssist-Breast to determine the risk of recurrence of hormone-positive breast cancer in Indian women and to minimize the unnecessary use of chemotherapy for low-risk patients. Our colorectal cancer samples and treatment data has been used to validate a protein marker that can accurately determine which patients will respond to topoisomerase inhibitors so that patients who do not respond are not given that therapy. Another test to stratify triple-negative breast cancer patients is in development using machine learning and AI-based algorithms for predicting good versus poor survival.

In addition to upcycling medical waste, we have generated employment for highly skilled biotech professionals and have spent enormous time and effort in preserving digitized health records of tens of thousands of patients undergoing treatment at hospitals. The biobank fulfills the need of clinicians and researchers to manage large volumes of patient samples. These benefits can also help the government understand patient demographics and tailor their policies and resources to best serve the people to promote health and well-being.

What opportunities do you foresee in this sector?

I see tremendous opportunities in several areas. One is pharmaco-economics to deliver cost-effective personalized medicine to Indian patients. I also foresee a digital revolution combining blockchain technology to track each sample and data, combined with omics (genomics, proteomics, metabolomics, phenomics), data science and bioinformatic analytics for deriving actionable knowledge from big data. I foresee cancer becoming manageable as a chronic disease just like hypertension and diabetes through the usage of intelligent and personalized treatments available. Early detection of blood-based tests will result in a reduction of the treatment of disease while increasing the quality and quantity of life dramatically.

Talking about our company, at the moment our samples and data are mostly from private hospitals. For it to be representative of India, the participation of public hospitals is needed in a public-private partnership where Sapien offers biobanking expertise to public hospitals to conserve and digitize valuable samples and datasets as part of ‘Digital India’. This can contribute large unbiased Indian data to drive public health policy and channel funds optimally.

What has been your experience in competing at the TiE women’s finals in Dubai?

Going in-person to Dubai was very useful in two ways:

a. Meeting TiE Charter Members, TiE-Women organizers and meeting the other 18 contestants from across the world. I have connected with many women who are in the healthcare, life sciences and diagnostics area and am exploring collaborative opportunities with them.

b. Learning to convey the message of one’s enterprise in a simple manner to non-subject-matter-experts. I learned a lot from other tech founders who were able to grab the attention of the jury and communicate the impact of their enterprise during their presentation. Many of us have pledged to mentor future TiE-Women cohorts and each other.